September 17, 1999
Richardson: Plant will stay
By Bill Bartleman
U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has eased fears that the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant might be closed because of widespread environmental problems that will cost more than $1 billion to correct.
"I can assure you that this plant will stay open," he said during a public meeting Thursday night in Paducah. "This is too valuable of a resource to our nation, and it is too important. It must stay open. It will stay open. We will clean it up."
Richardson also offered the first public apology for what he said was the government's failure to be honest and open about some of the activities at the plant since it opened in 1952.
"On behalf of the United States government, I am here to say I am sorry," he said. "From the evidence that has been uncovered recently, it is obvious that the U.S. government was not forthcoming about possible exposure to plutonium, and that was wrong. We should have been straight with our employees."
Many of the 200 people who attended the meeting appeared pleased at Richardson's admission that the government made mistakes and his commitment to compensate workers and former workers who have illnesses caused by exposure at the plant.
One of those who was pleased was Clara Harding, who was honored by Richardson for the efforts of her late husband, who died of cancer in 1980 at age 58. Joe Harding had maintained for years that his cancer was the result of contamination from the plant. He spent the final years of his life documenting his illness and trying to convince anyone who would listen that workers had been exposed to radioactive material. Harding's widow has carried on the battle.
"I feel better tonight than I have in a long time," she said after the meeting and after receiving a gold medal from Richardson for her work and the work of her husband. "I feel for the first time that someone is listening, and I feel good that he (Richardson) is going to do something about it."
Richardson promised that his commitments to compensate workers and former workers for their illnesses are not promises that will fade with time.
"We will investigate and get to the bottom of this," Richardson said. "I will be accountable, and you can hold me accountable. It is time the federal government accept its responsibility."
Richardson also said that the Department of Energy will take whatever legal action is necessary to make all former operators of the plant responsible for their roles in keeping workers in the dark about plutonium and other cancercausing materials that were inside the plant.
He said that includes Union Carbide Corp., the original plant operator. He acknowledged that it appears that many of the problems at the plant started during Carbide's tenure, which ended in 1982, when Martin Marietta took over.
"We have our own legal and judicial ways to hold current and former contractors accountable for this whole sordid mess," he said.
Most of the dozen or so who spoke had related their stories at previous public meetings.
Ray English, who lives near the plant, told about a release of radioactive material in 1970 when his wife, Ruby, was pregnant. He said his son has an illness that doctors say could have been caused by chemical contamination. He said his son is dying.
John Tillson said that when he worked at the plant in the early 1990s, his duties, which included reviewing classified documents, were curtailed when he began asking questions about some of the past problems. Eventually, Tillson said, he was forced to leave his job.
Celia Owens said her father died of a rare blood disorder more than 20 years ago. She wanted to know if her family would be compensated. Richardson said the family would be eligible for the same compensation as former workers who are still living with workrelated illnesses.
Ruby English said she has spent many years listening to the government deny the health problems of workers and nearby residents.
"If you live up to your commitments, you'll be the first one to do so," she told Richardson. English said she hoped that the government's interest doesn't diminish and that evidence gathered about contamination "isn't swept under the rug."
Richardson promised there would be action. "Under this administration, the government won't be working against you," he said. "We'll be working with you and for you."
After the meeting, Richardson said he was surprised, but pleased, that he didn't receive a more negative reaction from the community.
"I did expect a deserved hostile reaction, because the government hasn't been straight with workers," he said. "But what I got was a community that is united with concerns that it wants answered. I promise my best efforts to get answers and take care of the people who have been wronged by the government. That is all I can do. I feel very good about this community."